Amazon’s Uncle Frank is a touching story that is all too familiar for queer people, especially those from the 1970s. Alan Ball’s film takes place only four years after the Stonewall Riots, so the demand for change may not have yet reached Creekville, South Carolina where Paul Bettany’s title character hails from. Home is where the heart is, and production designer Darcy Scanlin created two distinct homes that reflect Frank’s emotional journey.
Scanlin was eager to dive into this world, because of the research. She admitted that working on the film felt like a fit because of how much she responded to the time period. “I was particularly fascinated with this family and this time, so it was a perfect storm,” Scanlin said at the top of our conversation.
We meet Frank in the summer at his parent’s house. The women are busy chattering in the kitchen while the men are eagerly watching the game in the next room. If we simply walked through Daddy Mac’s home, we would be informed of so much of this family’s life. Scanlin didn’t know just how much she and Ball were on the same page.
“Alan [Ball] had a lot of evocative, little details in the script. The avocado green refrigerator or a certain type of freezer on the back porch. There were details that emerged out of a certain specificity of who the characters are. These people would choose a certain kind of chair because of a world view. The way he would describe Daddy Mac’s house would remind me of my grandparents’ house. Little did I know that Alan was describing his grandparents’ house in the script and I was imagining my own as I interpreted the text of the script.”
Their kitchen, where we meet Margo Martindale’s Mammaw, is flooded with light and has warm yellow tones. Frank felt more tenderness from his mother, and a kitchen is a welcoming space where meals are prepared. Mammaw’s kitchen is very inviting, and the wallpaper is another way the film transports us.
“We had it printed it on a material that had some authenticity and some weight to it. The wallpaper in the kitchen was something we had made and then shipped to us. The wallpaper in the living room was actual vintage paper from a company in New York City. It was definitely 1960s but an almost fluorescent lime green and it was in velvet. We thought it was ridiculously cool and we debated on keeping it that color. We ended up deepening it that dark emerald. It felt more regal and more like the formality and dignity would’ve once had. It was once a dining room but then co-opted for Daddy Mac’s mancave. I love the feeling of entering a heavy energy of a space and it’s almost thick with personality of Daddy Mac.”
Contrasting to Mammaw’s kitchen was the living room where Daddy Mac presumably spent a lot of time watching sports or staying away from the cooking. The energy in the living room is completely different, and it feels like once you step into that room, you need to state your business and get out of Daddy Mac’s way. He even had an Archie Bunker-eque chair where he spent a lot of time.
“Amy Morrison, my decorator, and I went through so many chairs. It was so important because it was a kind of throne. These important scenes always happen with Daddy Mac in that chair. We went through different furniture and different options to decorate to fit the character and the tone. We used to have something fancier but the ones we used were from a thrift store. They were a bit simpler and it felt more fitting.”
When Sophia Lillis’ Beth ventures to Uncle Frank’s apartment, it’s the completely opposite of the house we see in South Carolina. It’s an intellectual’s paradise, complete with art cluttering the walls and so many books stacked together it could double as furniture. It’s truly a melding of Frank and Wally’s personalities and their time with one another. I am personally obsessed with the dark blue, ceiling-high bookshelves in one corner of the hallway.
“There’s definitely a mix between them. Frank is a little more cluttered and disorganized–as you can see from his office in NYU. Wally probably does more of the cleaning, but the objects in the house are the things they gathered through their relationship as they traveled and lived in New York. Maybe a little bit of art from Southern painters that Frank admired that might have found interesting because of his background. Art from their friends in New York because of the thriving art scene. It’s stuffed with books, though, and those are mostly Frank’s.”
As Wally joins Beth and Frank on the road back to Creekville, we make several stops to illuminate the journey. Frank has a heart to heart with Beth in a local diner that you won’t believe was originally a hurricane-destroyed gas station. It looks like a piece of Americana plucked out of a history book. It’s a testament to how production designers can transform one space to look incredibly lived-in and historical.
“It was truly abandoned after Hurricane Florence, and it had been flooded. The floor at the location was wavy and the tile on the floor was extremely bent and warped having sat underwater. The whole place was dangerous feeling, to be honest. It had the right bones so we were able to work with that and strategically patch the floor and figure out how to modify the space. I work extensively with models and the director and the DP can figure out staging. In our first couple of meetings, Alan and I went through hundreds and hundreds of pictures and we found things that we thought were in world and mapped it out visually. We liked how it had a pioneer style to look back at roadside diners of the 50’s. It would’ve still had that feeling.”
A lot of emotional moments happen at two separate hotels throughout the film. When Wally and Frank accompany Beth to the first space, the hotel clerk is hesitant to allow them all sleep in the same room. It’s a light, comedic moment reflected in the kookiness of the details that Scanlin included. When we get to Frank’s hometown for his father’s funeral, the second hotel is representative of the dense emotions that will be unpacked towards the end of the film.
“In the original motel–I think it was called The Pink Motel–Alan wanted it to be a funky, mid-century, kitschy space. It was the product of what we wanted the mood to be and have fun with how over-the-top it was. We had such fun finding the weirdest lamps and little accents. The lobby was actually a hotel room and we painted it and brought in the counter. The second motel in Creekville, that had to be right on the money 1973. Not looking back with any whimsy. Because what they are dealing is so intense, it’s reflected in the colors in heavier brown colors and heavy, damask curtains. It needed to reflect the mood with the dark colors and the oranges. It had to have so much weight.”